This article first appeared in the June 1997 issue of "Sound On Stage", and is subject to copyright restrictions. If you wish to use any part of this article for any purpose, please contact the author, Steve Cobham, via e-mail. Address all requests to:
NECK AND NECK -
Gibson Les Paul and Fender Strat Compared.
Before I begin the unenviable job of comparing these two fine guitars, I must first say that I have no 'axe' to grind! I am in the fortunate position of possessing both a Strat and a Les Paul, and asking me to choose which one I would leave behind if the house was on fire would be rather akin to selecting a leg for amputation. What then are the qualities of each that make this choice so difficult? Good question, and one which has perplexed plank-spankers from time immemorial.
Now, before I embark on this perilous task, I am going to lay down one basic ground rule. The instruments under scrutiny are the American Standard Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul Standard, or their near-equivalents. If I don't impose some restriction, I will probably end up discussing the various merits of a Les Paul Artisan with whammy bar and onboard ashtray or a Custom Shop Yngwie Malmsteen Strat with lipstick - tube pickups and balsa wood body, whilst waiting anxiously for the men in white coats to come knocking!
Sometimes, the appearance of an object can be uninformative, but in this instance much can be deduced about the genesis of both guitars and the philosophy behind their design. With its carved top, single cutaway and essentially 'woody' finish, the origins of the Les Paul lie in the big-bodied f-hole guitars of the 30's. Jazz and big band music were on the rise, and their increasing popularity meant that guitarists were finding it difficult to hold their own against large horn sections playing bigger venues. Initially, the problem was solved by simply adding pick-ups to what were essentially acoustic instruments, but then a new problem appeared, namely feedback. During this period, Les Paul refined the concept of a solid-bodied guitar that was less prone to feedback and also gave more sustain. Eventually, in 1952, the first Les Paul model was issued with a gold finish which sounds gaudier than it looked. In fact most Les Pauls are of rather modest colouration, the most widely available finishes being black and sunbursts of various hues. It seems fair to say that the general air about them is one of opulent understatement. Vintage Sunburst is the official name of the finish of mine. Brown, really!
Still looking futuristic more than forty years after its launch, the Strat is of a distinctly different ancestry. Leo Fender designed and produced amplifiers and lap-steel guitars prior to his foray into the standard guitar market and a lot of his best customers were western swing and country artists who, like their big band cousins, were dissatisfied with existing electric guitars. Leo's first solid was the Broadcaster, soon to become the Telecaster, an instrument worthy of discussion in its own right! The Stratocaster was designed as an upgrade, and with its asymmetrical body and twin cutaways, it must have seemed like a prop from a science-fiction film when it first appeared in 1954. It was soon issued in bright colours too, and, today, there are finishes to suit every taste. Mine is a rather fetching shade of Mr. Blobby - pink!
So, we have two guitars, as near-contemporary as makes no difference; outwardly seeming as if they came from two parallel universes. The differences don't end there though. The crux of this article is that they offer a broadly similar solution to the same problem, whilst having very different designs and qualities. The neck and body construction, hardware, and electrics of each guitar are of paramount importance for the appreciation of their individuality.
Both instruments have solid bodies, but the material of each is very different. The Les Paul has a mahogany body with a carved maple top, or 'cap'. The idea of this combination is to counterbalance the roundness and depth of sound produced from a mahogany body with brightness from the maple top. The back of the guitar is not contoured and is routed for the controls. Les Pauls tend to be heavy, a natural consequence of the dense mahogany. If you want the sustain and warmth of tone you'll just have to put up with the weight! The body of the Strat is usually made of ash or alder, depending on the instrument's vintage. These are much lighter woods which lend brightness and clarity to the overall sound. Smooth contouring on the back, rounded edges, and the horns produced by the cutaways give the body a very sensuous feel. The back is routed for the tremolo cavity, which contains the springs. I once heard this described as a 'mini echo chamber'. Certainly, judging from a couple of non-trem Strats I've tried out , you miss it when it isn't there. The sound seems deader and lacks a certain singing quality.
Now, the neck. Like the body, the Les Paul's neck is mahogany. This is topped with a rosewood fingerboard and wide, low frets which impart a soft and fluid feel, making playing seem rather effortless. The neck meets the headstock at quite an angle which ensures that the strings pass over the nut cleanly to ensure sustain. The strings then go to the machineheads which are of the three -a - side variety. Things are quite different with the Strat. Fender offers a choice of a one-piece maple neck with combined fingerboard or, maple neck with rosewood board. My 'Mr. Blobby' has a one-piece neck which I prefer, with frets similar to a Les Paul. The contrast with the Gibson is very marked. All-maple necks are very slick, almost 'greasy', whilst feeling positive to the fingertips . I also find that the maple option enhances the sound, contributing a brittleness I find very attractive. Where the neck and head join there is no angle. The strings go over the nut, to the headstock which is 'stepped down',and then, in the case of the top four strings, under string retainers to the six-a-side tuners. This strategy for ensuring an adequate string break angle, is just as effective as Gibson's, but serves as a prime example of Fender's radically different approach to the same problem.
An important factor, often taken for granted when actually playing, is the scale length. This is the actual 'speaking length' of the strings, that is, the distance between the nut and the bridge. The Strat has a scale length of 25.5", as opposed to the Les Paul's 24.75", a difference of only 0.75", but a significant one nonetheless. In essence, if both guitars were fitted with strings of the same gauge, the Gibson would be perceived as having 'slacker' strings. In practice, many players, myself included, attempt to nullify this disparity by stringing Gibsons a gauge heavier than Fenders. A longer scale length is also said to add more clarity to the sound. When it comes to joining neck and body, Gibson and Fender adopt different methods yet again. It is here that an extremely significant factor in the sound of each guitar is found . The Les Paul has a traditional glued wood joint which allows natural sustain to be transmitted from the strings through the neck and body, which then respond as a single unit. On the other hand, the Fender has a bolt-on neck attached by four screws and a steel plate (rather like Barry Sheene's leg). This was a feature originally introduced so that Fender's customers could obtain replacement necks easily. Perhaps guitarists were a lot more physical in the 50's! This joint causes sustain to be interrupted so that neck and body resonate less sympathetically. In terms of access to the upper frets, both guitars offer less than many of today's instruments but this seems adequate for most players. The neck joint on the Strat seems suspended high above the body when I play on the highest frets, whilst that on the Gibson seems almost flush with it . This is due to the different way the necks are set and can be quite disorientating when you go from one to the other in quick succession.
Now for the ironmongery! The bridge is yet another area where the two guitars have little in common. The Strat has a combination bridge and tremolo unit. Each bridge saddle is adjustable for intonation and string height, which means that you can also compensate for the fretboard radius. The tremolo can be made to float, or use the body as a stop, or even be disabled completely for those of us who don't want to pretend to be Steve Vai. On the Les Paul bridge , intonation can be set, but only overall bridge height adjustment is allowed by the design and the string radius is preset too. However, the Gibson's bridge is no less efficient or accurate than the Fender's, in spite of its less numerous features. The Les Paul hasn't got a tremolo system either, but it has got a stop tailpiece, so there! Now, this is something I've never fiddled - I mean experimented - with, but a friend assures me that it can affect sustain when raised or lowered. He also wears an anorak.
Electricity.......tricky blighter Johnny Electricity. Mind you, he's damn' useful when you want to make some noise. So, we arrive at the land of knobs, not to mention switches, and pick-ups. The pick-ups fitted to the Strat are single-coil types, generically noted for their rather toppy sound , comparatively low output and occasional susceptibility to interference. Some people install a humbucker in the bridge position in an attempt to boost the signal. Fender even produce such a model themselves. Seems a bit like interfering with Nature to me! There are three single - coil pick-ups installed in neck, middle and bridge positions, with a selector switch yielding five different settings. In current parlance, these are: 1, neck pick-up only, 2, neck and middle, 3, middle, 4, middle and bridge, ending with position 5, bridge pick-up only. The combinations of all three, or neck and bridge together are not available in the standard wiring configuration but are often the subject of modifications made by players whose bedtime reading consists solely of weighty electronics suppliers' catalogues. Just don't get hot solder anywhere near that Hendrix Woodstock Strat you've got in the garden shed! In case anyone with a three position switch feels underendowed, you have got the five combinations, but you'll have to fiddle with your switch to get numbers 2 and 4. Gaffer tape might help to keep the switch in position. Then again, so would superglue - only joking! Strat owners also have a master volume pot and twin tone pots too. Again, these sometimes get a visit from Mr. Soldering Iron. Gibson owners seem less inclined to perform mods on their guitars. They have two twin-coil pick-ups, or humbuckers, as they are more commonly known. Humbuckers, unsurprisingly, don't hum much and are reknowned for their high output and 'middly' tone. These occupy the bridge and neck positions of the Les Paul and are selected by a three - way toggle switch which allows you to have either pick-up on, or both on. Furthermore, each pick-up has its own volume and tone control . The toggle switch has a quaint little label informing you that the neck pickup is for 'rhythm', whilst the bridge is for 'treble'. I ignore this kind advice and do what my ears tell me. It must be some kind of 50's thing.
Well that's a brief description of the differing origins and construction features of the two guitars. Brief? I hear you ask in disbelief. People write whole books about specific guitars, so consider yourself lucky! Besides, the above has a direct bearing on our next topic, the sound of the two instruments. So, let's strap 'em on, crank 'em up, and rock and roll! (Thank you, Spinal Tap)
I'll try not to sound too much like a wine connoisseur while I'm attempting to describe the sounds and the role played by the various features of the guitars. So, hopefully, no ' limpid lyre-like sighs ' or ' demonic snarls of fury '. Unless absolutely necessary of course....
You may have gathered, or already know, that the Strat is a bright-sounding guitar. This is rather akin to saying that the First World War was rather violent. In position 1 ( neck pick-up only - there'll be a test at the end! ) even the mellowness associated with this location has a toppy timbre. Think Dave Gilmore, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Hendrix ( 'Little Wing ' in particular ) to imagine this. With gain, the top gets less distinct but you'll be rewarded with a thick tone that is great for blues.With position 2, you'll become a 'Sultan of Swing' when you select one of the two in-between , or so-called out-of-phase settings. The middle pick-up doesn't seem to be a popular choice, due to its somewhat nondescript sound. Funk-type skanking sounds OK though, as does blues, with a bit of distortion. Position 4, my own particular favourite, is the other in-between sound available. Best appreciated using a clean amp setting, it has a lovely hollow quality with a snap to it. Richard Thompson is one of its chief proponents and he can get away with using gain as well, obtaining a very crunchy tone. The final setting is high frequency heaven. Johnny Marr (Bring back the Smiths ) can be heard using it, as can Hendrix, 'Voodoo Child (Slight Return)' being a good example. This pick-up can really scream -sorry!- at full gain. If you want even more cutting treble, stick number 1 through an open wah - wah pedal, truly painful, or buy a Telecaster. Don't ignore the tone controls either. Subtle adjustments to these can give you a host of sounds. The volume can also be used like a swell pedal to give you a 'bowed' effect. Then there's the tremolo-arm, giving you all types of wobble from Marvin to Metallica.
The Strat is a guitar that takes some getting used to. When you play one, you need to put a lot of yourself in to get what you want out. It is a very tactile guitar, with a lot of attitude. Play one, and discover the joys of a guitar with 'manual transmission'.
And here's the 'automatic' roaring to a halt! A bit of a wolf in sheep's clothing, the Gibson. The neck pick-up is typical of this deception. Go to a clean amp setting and roll off the top - instant jazz guitar. Now add gain and you have a fluty voice that some old codgers refer to as 'woman tone'. Clapton used this quite a lot in Cream. Wind the tone pot right up and you too can be Gary Moore, with that big, round, sound that seems to almost tear itself out of the speakers. At least four 12-inch drivers are needed for maximum fallout. The sustain has a thick and creamy quality that is almost tangible. The middle position, combining both pick-ups, is not as useable at high gain levels as it loses its positively delicate tone. However, add only a little gain and you can obtain a good Peter Green impersonation. Now all you have to do now is put his feel into your playing. An interesting setting I discovered was full gain, neck tone all rolled off, bridge tone right up and both volumes full on. Hey Presto! Dire Straits, the intro to 'Money For Nothing'. The bridge pick-up is the fiercest setting of the three. At medium to high levels of gain, it has enough power and sustain to rip through and get you noticed. Be prepared to back off some of the top and early Clapton and Ocean Colour Scene are both there. Add lots of gain with very little tone and you might have to call yourself Billy Gibbons.
The Les Paul is a very 'easy' guitar to play, with its finger-friendly fretboard and overall solidity. It has powerful pick-ups that can really drive an amp and give you all the depth and dark tones you could ever want in your sound. The components all work in harmony to make those notes ring on and on. So there they are, two guitars that were designed for the same purpose; to get the guitarist heard clearly without the nuisance of feedback but, ironically, proving to be very good at harnessing it. Still, you can't blame Les or Leo for not anticipating rock music.
Which one would I pluck from the fire then? As I said at the beginning, it would be a very difficult decision to make. I just hope I'm never in that position! Oh yes, that reminds me. Which pick-up would you find at position 1 on a Strat?
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